When most creative people hear the word “criticism,” I think we tend to shy away from it. There’s something inherently terrifying about sharing something that you’ve put time and effort and love into, and then asking people to tell you what they think of it. It’s a vulnerable position to be in, and one that many of us do our best to avoid. But as I’ll talk about in this post, criticism is an important part of growing as a writer, and learning how to accept and build on criticism will help refine your voice and talent.
There’s a very clear distinction between criticism and constructive criticism, mainly that constructive criticism calls out good and bad points about whatever is being critiqued. Just telling someone what’s wrong isn’t always helpful, since it can leave you feeling like you aren’t doing anything right. Constructive criticism bypasses that by also focusing on good or effective points in the work.
If you can find someone who can actually give constructive criticism of your work, hold onto that person for dear life. In my experience, most people will fall into the habit of being critical. They’ll point out one issue they have with the work, then piggyback off of it with another problematic area, and the cycle continues ad nauseam. I think people tend to get focused on a certain mindset, and that’s what leads to this behavior. Getting quality constructive criticism means talking to people who can stay focused on helping you, rather than pointing out all of your problems, and those kind of people aren’t easy to find. I get most of my criticism from my writing group and friends who are artists. Generally, other creative people understand the somewhat delicate state you can be in when showing your work to others, so they’re more aware of staying constructive with their criticism. I would highly recommend finding a local writing or editing group, working with them for a few weeks, and seeing if there’s someone who’s particularly good at criticism. They may be willing to work with you one-on-one, especially if you agree to edit or critique their work as well.
One thing that I love about getting critiques from others is that it pulls me away from a work. I’ve been writing Burner for over three years now, and I am about as deep into the thing as you can get. I know the ins and outs of the plot, of the characters, of the world in a way that no one else does. Makes sense, since I made most of it up. However, it makes it really hard for me to tell if something is effective. The little clue in chapter four that I think makes the whole mystery obvious may be completely brushed over by another reader. I can’t see the forest for the trees, and so I miss the problems that exist in my draft. By having someone with fresh eyes look at the work, they can pinpoint where things are weak or need more explanation. Even if they don’t give constructive criticism, it can still be useful information on how and where to improve the work. Constructive criticism will also let you know where your strengths are. For many of the same reasons that I overlook my weaknesses, I do the same with my strengths. It all comes down to perspective, and getting a different perspective on your work can remove some of the blinders that comes with being the creator.
The hardest part of criticism of any kind is learning how to take it with grace. I just recently went through this process with some of my descriptive (or rather not descriptive) scenes in Burner. There are a handful of people who are reading through the draft right now and giving me feedback, and there are some areas in the book that honestly need to be expanded upon in terms of description. I already know that this is a weakness of mine, stemming from where I got my start in writing. In fanfic, you take a lot of the descriptive elements for granted, as everyone reading it is already familiar with the character, their world, and the places they inhabit. So in a few of the early scenes, especially ones that haven’t changed much since the first draft, the settings are a little… well, vague. Kim’s apartment suffers from this the most, partially because I didn’t have a clear image of it in my mind when I started writing the book, and because I haven’t gone back to strengthen the descriptions in subsequent edits. Honestly, I didn’t struggle with that bit of critique. I already knew that Kim’s apartment is vaguely defined, and I need to go back and flesh it out.
The more difficult criticism I received from multiple people was that they didn’t get that Kim was blond. In the first chapter, I mention this twice, and there’s a follow-up scene in chapter two that further expands on her hair color. As far as I was concerned, I’d covered the topic in depth, and my readers should have caught it. But again, it’s all about perspective and learning to take a step back. If more than one person cannot describe what your main character looks like, you’ve missed something somewhere. There’s an opportunity to be more specific, to explain better, to make things clearer for your readers. So I took a deep breath, calmed down, and considered it more rationally. I did a bit of research into effective description, used that new knowledge to look at the scenes where I described Kim, and then edited with all of that in mind. And, to be honest? Those changes helped the story. Was it hard to hear that people were misremembering my main character? You bet it was! But did I ignore that because it upset me? No. I considered it, weighted the facts, and then made changes.
Sometimes, though, you need to be true to your own voice. After all, this is your story. You’re the only one who can tell it. If someone says “your main character is too bookish,” but they’re supposed to be that way? Well, that’s someone else’s opinion. It’s not an immutable fact, it’s how that person reads the character. And if your character is supposed to be bookish, then go with it. You want to consider what other people have to say, but it’s ultimately your story and your writing, and sometimes you need to stick to your guns. Now, if everyone who reads the story struggles with your bookish character because he’s also incredibly stupid, you may want to reconsider the character choices you’ve made. Doesn’t mean you make changes, though, only that you take a step back from your work and consider it as an outsider.
I’ll be posting again on Friday, probably about Star Wars stuff. My husband and I are going to see Rogue One tomorrow night at the state museum, where it’s showing in 70mm (you are allowed to be jealous). I’ve been a fan of Star Wars since I was a little girl, and I am absolutely loving that there are so many new works coming out of the franchise. Maybe I’ll talk about transformative works in general, since both Rogue One and Episode VII fall into that category.
You all have a wonderful evening. Talk to you soon.